One of the last Virtual Boy games to be released in Japan, Virtual Lab is a strange falling block puzzler that, rumour has it, was still being developed when developer J-Wing got wind of Nintendo’s plan to discontinue support of the Virtual Boy. They then hurriedly finished it off, so as they could get it in to shops whilst there was still the opportunity to make some cash off of it. The box informing us that the game is “Licensed by Nintenndo” lends this story some credence, but not as much as actually playing it.
On the very basic looking title screen you can pick from one of three speed options: Low, Mid and Hi. However they are in fact just three different varieties of slow. The slowest gives you time to nip off to the toilet whilst your block is falling and the least slow (which strangely is Mid) is the kind of opening slow pace you might expect from a game that gets steadily faster. Unfortunately this game does not get any faster, though you can speed up the descent of the blocks by holding down on the d-pad.
In one way it’s lucky that the game is so slow because there are troubles with the controls. They can be a bit too sensitive at times, moving two spaces to right when you only wanted one, then moving two to the left when you try to correct it. The A button is used to rotate the blocks clockwise but you cannot rotate them anti-clockwise.
Each level begins with some blocks already in place. They appear to be bits of either arteries or intestines (something internal and tube-like, anyway) and the aim of the game is to join pieces together so as there are no open areas. Placing an opening against either the side wall or floor counts as sealing it, but placing it against the side of another piece does not. Apart from the sides of the playing area, a slightly phallic end piece can also be used to seal off any gaps. The other blocks are a straight section, a corner piece and blocks with three and four openings that can come in very handy for building large chains. On occasion you may have two or three blocks fall at once in a horizontal line and this is where you use the B button, to switch their order. Once a chain is completed it disappears, providing you with points. As well as your score, the number of blocks used in both your previous and best chains (for the current level) are shown. When all the blocks are cleared, the level is completed and you move on to the next.
The blocks have a simple design but you can easily tell them apart and the openings are clearly visible and they pulsate which makes them a bit more interesting. Sadly, the rest of the game looks awful. The background is black with simple stars scrolling by whilst in the foreground you will find a badly animated girl. Standing beneath your score and chain stats, she glances left and right (two frames) as you play, looking quite bored. Clear some pieces and she will perform a jerky dance, again using as few frames as possible. There is also frequent movement in the chest area - in slight 3D, no less. This is probably intended to be a heaving bosom, but the constant bulging forward looks more like the infamous "Chestburster" scene from Alien.
There are very few other instances of 3D, but being a puzzle game, that’s not really surprising. When the next piece becomes visible at the top of the screen, it starts very slightly further away, before pushing forward and dropping down. Bizarrely, the Virtual Boy's 3D effect is also used on the score and chain stats. The words appear closer to the screen than the numbers, which is pointless and looks very strange.
Rotating the blocks has a basic inoffensive sound, much like the clunk as they drop in to place but the ringing as you move them left and right is very irritating. The music that plays during the level is a little beepy and very repetitive. It can get annoying but plays at a low volume so it’s not as bad as it could be. Upon clearing a level a short jolly non-irritating tune plays but as each level begins you are subjected to a short harsh-sounding piece that really grates, making you contemplate failing the next level just to avoid having to listen to it. This would be a mistake though as the Game Over tune is a horribly basic and highly annoying bit of music that sounds like it was lifted from a cheap LCD game.
There are 100 levels in the game with the first few being ridiculously easy. In the worst instances you have one opening to seal off and are presented with an end bit as your first piece. As you progress to the next few levels however, you will find an increase in the number of blocks littering the screen, some of which are positioned so as there’s no way you can create a chain - but there is a way to clear them.
Should you construct a chain of ten or more blocks you will see the baby Xenomorph momentarily stop trying to escape the girl as she slips in to a trance to summon an angel who then proceeds to remove the bottom row of blocks with a pick-axe. This then either directly removes the troublesome pieces or rearranges the blocks in a way that makes a chain possible because removing the bottom layer does not just shift everything down one space. There may have been a chain above that would be complete if not for a block on the bottom row ruining things, once that’s gone the opening touches the ground, removing the chain and causing the blocks at various points above its route to drop down.
It doesn’t have to be just using the bottom row; you will spot potential chains throughout the pile of innards and will soon find yourself placing pieces in a position knowing that once you clear a certain chain it will fall into place to complete another. Sometimes this is a good way to get your ten blocks if say you can only complete an 8 piece chain, but doing this ensures you get a few more to up the count past ten. Suddenly the game briefly becomes a lot of fun. Seeing your carefully laid plan come to fruition is very satisfying especially if it manages to clear the whole screen – though the effect is ruined slightly as the angel still appears even though there are no blocks for him to chip away at.
It’s unfortunate then that these fun moments are few and far between. You may have to create several ten-piece chains to finish a level but often you will find the pieces you are given can only be arranged in one way. This adds a little challenge as one mistake and it’s usually game over but with so much time to think about your move, generally it’s just boring. Also before you hit level 20 the game has got about as hard as it’s going to get so there’s no increased challenge although sometimes you have an impossible challenge as the game positions the start pieces past the top of the screen.
When you clear a level you are shown what appears to be a password but there does not appear to be anywhere to enter it. However, once your game is over, starting a new game places you back on the level you were just on but with your score reset to zero. This seems very odd. While it does allow you to see all the levels, it seems pointless when you have to do the same thing on them all – and the blocks are randomly generated so it’s not as if each level is a set puzzle to be solved. If for some masochistic reason you do play through all 100 levels, clearing the final one just lets you play it again. Oh joy.
There are moments where despite the slow speed of play and the horrendous sounds coming from the speakers that Virtual Lab is actually fun to play. When you are busy planning elaborate chains it’s apparent that the game has potential, but most of the time it’s horribly dull as you go through the motions of placing blocks in the only logical place to clear the level so as you can get to do the same thing all over again. With some tweaks Virtual Lab could have been another good VB puzzler, but as it is, it’s one to avoid.